The NFL Salute to Service is a year-round effort to Honor, Empower, and Connect our nation's service members, veterans, and their families. Each year, each team across the league selects a nominee for the Salute to Service Award to recognize an individual whose exceptional efforts in honoring and supporting U.S. service members, veterans and their families. However, this year, the Seattle Seahawks nominee hits close to home.
Nino Gray never had the intention of joining the military, but when the opportunity presented itself, he realized quickly that he was being provided a chance to change his life.
"Going to the military was a way out," said Gray. "One of my buddies wanted to join the military and asked if I would go with him. I went and the crazy thing is I ended up joining and he didn't."
Gray did not have the easiest upbringing, so when this opportunity landed in his lap, he jumped at the chance.
"It was a secure and safe way away from my upbringing," Gray said. "I was guaranteed three meals and a place to sleep at night."
The impact the military had was almost instant.
"The military for me was the very first time, outside of just my mom, where I felt like I was part of something," Gray said. "You feel your acceptance and feel like you're a part of a team. You've found belonging. You learn through those struggling times how to really depend on each other when your life is on the line."
Though joining the military started as a way out, it was not his only reason for joining. Gray joined the military in May of 2003, which was a time when there was a lot of emphasis on war.
"The part for war is honestly what caught my eye," said Gray. "Watching movies, you kind of romanticize the idea of wanting to get a taste for that."
Gray learned quickly what that atmosphere would truly taste like and realized that it was not so much a foreign concept after all.
"You were focused on having to operate as a team, how to depend on one another, how to keep each other alive, how to keep yourself alive," said Gray. "Believe it or not, a lot of that stuff was survival related and was relatable to a lot of the things I grew up around, so I was able to adapt to it quickly."
Though he was able to adapt quickly, this was not always the case for those who surrounded him. Gray had to take a step back and truly learn how to adapt and work with others to the best of his ability.
"I'm grateful I learned about the power of diversity," said Gray. "People from completely different backgrounds can look at the same situation and observe it in very different ways but make it work. We were all each other had."
Unfortunately, Gray's military career went in a direction that one never wishes to take. On September 24, 2010, Gray nearly lost his life.
"When I was in Afghanistan, our Stryker got hit with a 400 lb. IED, right under my feet," said Gray. "Coming out of that incident, I had a traumatic brain injury, I crushed my right leg and now have two 12-inch plates and 18 pins. I broke my rib."
What would hold many back, Gray seized as an opportunity to continue to adapt and grow in his life.
"It changed my life because for so long I was able to attack life with just my athletic ability. I played sports my whole life, and even in the military I was able to do things because of my athletic ability," said Gray. "After getting hurt, I had to readjust my game. I had to relearn life and the way I knew how to live in it."
The drive to relearn how to live is what sparked a new passion for Gray. He wanted to find a way to give back to those who gave so much to him in his life.
"My accident threw me on a mission," said Gray. "When I got hurt and someone gave me a backpack when I was in the hospital, I got to feel a way I've never felt before. From that point on, I knew I wanted to help soldiers. That's all I want to do."
After taking the time to recover from his injuries, Gray began working with the Wounded Warrior Project and later with TriWest Healthcare Alliance. Both of these organizations provided him with the outlet to continue serving the men and women of the military. However, with Gray being so passionate and putting his all into veteran services for so long, he was ready to take a step back and shift careers.
"I had hit compassion fatigue. You wanted to be able to help everyone, and often times I felt like I wasn't doing nearly enough," said Gray. "I stepped back, went back to school, and I saw that the Seahawks had a security position open. It didn't deal with anything veteran services, so I jumped at the opportunity."
While this was a nice change of pace, Gray couldn't stay away from veteran services for long.
"My leadership on the security team pushed me to put my name in for the military services position," said Gray. "I started interviewing, and that led me to the position I'm in now."
When he stepped into this new position, community engagement manager, Gray knew he made the right decision.
"I have the greatest job in the world if I'm being honest," said Gray. "I get to represent two loves of my life which is military and football."
On top of managing relationships between the Seattle Seahawks, its players, and the military community, Gray also researched veteran service organizations which led him to found a partnership he named "Task Force 12."
Task Force 12 is a partnership between the Seattle Seahawks and 12 local grassroots military non-profit organizations that have joined forces to show their support for military service members, veterans, and their families.
"You look at what we're doing with Task Force 12, none of us veterans that are involved really served in the military together, but we understand the importance of being able to rely on one another," said Gray. "Off of a general idea of wanting to help other veterans, we were able to come together and it's just as strong as if we all served."
Outside of the job though, Gray lives his life to the fullest every day.
"Life has its rollercoasters, but I've learned that being able to express your feelings and tell people what's going on is vital," Gray said. "Everybody is battling some type of journey. I just try to stay vocal and be vocal for others."
He has learned to truly love every moment that is provided to him, and he loves even more that he gets to share those opportunities with the ones he loves.
"I focus on being a father," said Gray. "Growing up, all I wanted to be was dad. As they get to live their journey, I get to live it with them."
Gray has lived a life that many only hear about in stories. He's faced adversity, trials, tribulations, yet he still is able to maintain a positive and empowering attitude throughout every day. How is someone who has seen so much able to still have so much joy? Because it's bigger than him.
"I would have never thought that all of this would lead me to working with the Seahawks. That part has been pretty, pretty amazing," said Gray. "Working here and helping others, it reassures me that I'm on the right track. We're getting to help people and change lives every day, and that's what it's all about."
Having this nomination is something Gray never dreamed would happen, but it speaks volumes to him.
"Having this nomination means that I'm following God's path and that I must be doing something right," said Gray. "All I want is to represent this organization the right way, have an impact on people's lives, and honor the faith this organization has in me."
For Gray, the military gave him a life he never dreamed he could have. The Seahawks gave him the life to always Honor, Empower and Connect with his military community.
A look at photos of Nino Gray in action in his current role as Community Engagement Manager for the Seattle Seahawks. Gray was nominated by the Seahawks for the 2021 Salute To Service Award, recognizing an individual who displays exceptional efforts in honoring and supporting U.S. service members, veterans and their families.